Abuse a Feature, Not Failure of Bigger Government

I think the most significant thing to come out of the trio (so far) of Obama administration scandals last week was how they pointed out the cognitive and practical failures of “progressive” beliefs about big government. They’re scrambling to define the abuses and failures of government agencies and individuals as aberrations of a government that oversees, well, everything when in fact these types of failures are inevitable features of central planning and the belief that a governing elite of well-intentioned experts can guide us lesser souls to happiness and fulfillment by rationally and scientifically allocating resources and regulating behavior.

This is nonsense.

If you have ten minutes right now before going any further, read I Pencil by Leonard Read. That along with the brief intro by current FEE president Larry Reed and an afterward by Milton Friedman say everything I want to say, only better than I can say it. And well before I ever thought of it.

If you don’t have ten minutes right now then bookmark the I Pencil link and read it later. Here, in a nutshell, is what it says:

1. What kind of arrogant idiot (I’m going with idiot even though I’m thinking something else) thinks they can possibly know the wants and needs or “what’s best” for an entire society full of people with as many tastes, value systems, priorities, hopes, dreams, fears, talents, challenges and even luck as there are social security numbers?

2. Assuming they know what’s best for everybody, what kind of arrogant idiot thinks they can measure, produce and allocate every resource, from the raw materials to delivery of the finished product, to every person to allow them to fulfill their dreams and desires?

3. Assuming they know what makes everybody happy and that they can provide everything to make everybody happy, what kind of arrogant idiot thinks, where humans are involved, that the massive power to pick winners and losers, to allocate success and failure, will not be abused by the people doing the allocating and deciding? The insiders will prosper and everyone else will toil under their yoke.

In Federalist 51, James Madison said:

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If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.


We don’t live in a world of angels, we’ve just become so lazy that we’d rather assume we do than take on the responsibilities of self-governing.

The biggest lesson of the last week isn’t that there are arrogant idiots in government, even if they’re a minority. It’s that no matter how well meaning, no matter how divinely inspired or technically adept and scientifically sound, governance-by-expert is a fallacy. There is no magic mathematical formula or giant computer model that can divine a balance between what the actual people of a nation want and what that nation has. The only system that’s done that is free enterprise: free people making free decisions in a reasonably regulated free market. Everything else has been tried and failed miserably – literally leading to misery.

President Obama, in a moment when he actually said what he meant and not what he though you wanted to hear, famously said that government is the only thing we all belong to. No, government should belong to all of us. We need to take it back, and the first step is to get it down to a manageable size.

Occupy Your Noggin

By: Carl Graham, President, Montana Policy Institute

Is it just me or do people in the “Occupy” movement seem mostly interested in occupying their time? They’d be better off trying to occupy that vast empty space between their ears; but why bother when someone will give you a slogan and armband for free.

The whole thing is starting to look like an amateurish knockoff of European austerity protests. Now those people know how to riot.

In the beginning it included Ron Paul conservatives with “End the Fed” signs and a lot of ordinary people with legitimate gripes about bailouts and corporate cronyism (but I repeat myself). Now, though, it’s mostly the standard agitprop by anarchists and communists that gets trotted out anytime sanitation rules are relaxed,

In fact, one of my favorite themes is that we need to end government corruption by growing government. Of course. And I plan to get skinny again by hanging out at buffets.

Here’s a thought. Rather than fighting government corruption by adding more layers of corruptible government, how about we fight government corruption by removing the reasons for corrupting it in the first place? Let’s remove the odor rather than buy a new air freshener.

And that odor we smell is crony capitalism. It’s government picking winners and losers, and people paying to be on the winners’ list. H. L. Mencken said that every election is an advance auction on stolen goods, and we’ve created the biggest auction house in the world.

Take Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. With all the focus on the one percent it would be forgivable to have missed that these government sponsored businesses, which are on track to lose upwards of $120 billion in bailout funds, just paid their top executives nearly $13 million in bonuses. (1) Funny we didn’t see the Occupy Wall Street protesters marching by their headquarters.

Funny we didn’t see them marching by the White House, either. Another odor coming from those sanitation free zones across the country is the idea of equal incomes, and according to census data U.S. incomes have never been more unequal than they are right now under the current administration. (2)

But here’s a nugget the protesters can chew on to occupy their minds. Incomes are never equal. Politburo members were wildly better off than average Soviet citizens. The elite in socialist or despotic countries are always richer than the masses whose lives they’ve taken it as their burden to look after. And of course Washington D.C. is one of the few places where employment and incomes are growing, even in this economy.

The truth is that the poorest Americans live better than the majority of the world’s inhabitants, and have comforts that “the one percent” didn’t dream of 100 or even 50 years ago. Prosperity isn’t zero sum. It doesn’t come from equal incomes; it comes from the increased incomes that reasonably regulated free markets make possible. And all incomes can and do rise if people are allowed to reap the fruits of their labors.

The relevant question isn’t about equal outcomes, but about how opportunity is allocated. If government picks winners and losers only the favored will prosper and the Bill Gates’ of the world will never get out of their garages. If we are equal under the law, though, that protects the right to use our talents, ambitions, interests, and even luck to achieve our potential. Government can and should protect that right, but it should not allocate it.

I’ll never understand those who think that, by putting something in government’s hands, it will somehow be artfully and magnanimously managed. Government is people; people who come from the same gene pool as the rest of us. There are the same percentages of good, bad, competent, and incompetent in government as anywhere else. You wouldn’t hand your health care, family, faith, or any other important decisions over to Google or General Motors. Why would you hand them over to another bunch of people who are even less accountable and know less about you?

We should all be free to reach for our potential. But government picking winners and losers only helps the connected few. We ought to occupy ourselves changing that.


For Immediate Release

696 Words


Carl Graham is president of the Montana Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy research and education center based in Bozeman.

He can be reached at:

67 W. Kagy Blvd., Ste. B

Bozeman, MT 59715

(406) 219-0508


Notes: (for ed. use)


(2), p. 3